The straw fiasco has become an area of environmental concern over the last few years, with many businesses and establishments taking action to reduce the use of single-use, non-biodegradable straws and replace them with ones made from various other recyclable/reusable materials. But was there really an issue in the first place? And are the replacement materials any more biodegradable?
The original plastic straws do in fact biodegrade within six months
Although this may be true, due to the longer timescale, we’re forced to send them to landfill where they have the opportunity to harm animals in the period before they biodegrade. For this reason, plastic straws are set to be banned by 2025, with more and more hospitality establishments opting for alternative material straws such as paper, or removing straws altogether.
This adjustment hasn’t gone down too well with customers, with businesses receiving tonnes of complaints regarding the quality of paper straws, as well as the fact that the use of straws to aid the ill and disabled seems to have been overlooked – Jessica Kellgren-Fozard comedically explains the pitfalls in her Youtube video What’s Wrong With Reusable Straws?
Has the change been successful?
The push to eliminate the use of plastic straws with the aim of replacing them with ones which biodegrade faster and can therefore be recycled is made a complete farce of in instances such as the McDonalds straw fiasco. The global franchise replaced their recyclable (according to this CNN article) plastic straws for paper ones in June 2018 to contribute to the eradication of plastic straws by 2025. However, it’s recently come to light that they couldn’t in fact be recycled at all due to their thickness. This raises the question of how much of our ‘recycled’ waste actually ends up being recycled, and how much ultimately ends up on landfill sites either here or in developing countries where we shipped our waste off to until the National Sword took effect.
Is it even worth recycling?
In an article on The Guardian, Jim Puckett, Executive Director of Basel Action Network in Seattle (a company that campaigns against the illegal waste trade) says, “It’s really a complete myth when people say that we’re recycling our plastics”. It’s no wonder then, that many UK councils want to scrap recycling altogether. Roland Geyer, Professor of Industrial Ecology at the University of California, explains the problem, saying that although almost every type of plastic is recyclable, a lot of it doesn’t end up getting recycled as the process is costly and complex. It’s almost not beneficial to recycle some types of plastic due to the high carbon footprint associated with the process, “You ship it around, then you have to wash it, then you have to chop it up, then you have to re-melt it” Geyer states.
The underlying message seems to be that we should cut down on our plastic use altogether as this material is difficult to recycle. Therefore, the agreement by 350 companies to ban the use of plastic straws by 2025 is a positive step in saving our planet. However, replacement materials need a serious rethink as to, primarily, whether they can be easily recycled; and additionally, how effective they are in performing their function to the same level as the plastic straw. Currently, the paper straw tends to be too thick to successfully be recycled, largely due to the inner wax strengthening agent which itself can’t be recycled…They also go very soggy in most liquids and end up disintegrating, a disappointing drinking experience for all and a complete straw fiasco.
An innovative idea by Stroodles uses pasta as straws. Being foodstuff, the material is biodegradable and holds its shape in cold liquids. Of course it has its disadvantages, such as its rigid state not allowing for any flexibility and its cost being a little higher; but if the majority of the able general public and businesses switch to alternative straws, leaving only those who depend on plastic straws to use them, this will go a long way in reducing global plastic use and environmental damage.
Too much focus on the straw fiasco?
Whilst there’s been a huge focus on plastic straws, this is only a small part of reducing our single-use plastics. As Jessica Kellgren-Fozard points out, why are we not focusing on banning other single-use plastics such as false nails, which only serve a cosmetic purpose, rather than a functional one? More importantly, we need to take the emphasis off of recycling which should in fact be the last resort when it comes to the sequence of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.
We can first reduce our use of materials which can’t be reused or recycled, for instance opting not to use one of the provided supermarket plastic bags for fruit and veg and retailers providing paper bags rather than plastic ones. We can then reuse our materials as much as possible, including plastic bags, water bottles etc before choosing to recycle. The aim is to send as little to landfill as possible as the majority will not biodegrade and is therefore likely to harm animals or contaminate environments. Even the materials that do biodegrade release methane whilst doing so, therefore contributing to global warming – an alarming environmental issue the planet is currently trying to reduce the impact of by cutting down on animal farming/meat consumption!
It may seem like an overwhelming global task but don’t forget that the world is also constantly developing and coming up with new solutions and ways to save the environment. For example, chemical recycling is currently being considered in order to tackle the plastics that we struggle to recycle due to the complicated and expensive process involved. Adrian Griffiths, founder of Recycling Technologies in Swindon, explains in The Guardian’s article that chemical recycling involves transforming plastics into oil or gas which can then be used as a fuel for new plastic.
Straw fiasco conclusions
As it stands, it’s questionable how much of what we think we’re recycling actually gets recycled, especially when it comes to plastic. The straw fiasco has highlighted this, drawing our attention to our reliance on plastic and the lack of functional substitute materials. It’s therefore essential that we change our attitude and lifestyle habits sooner rather than later to mean that we firstly reduce our waste production, secondly reuse any material we can, and thirdly recycle the remainder; reducing the quantity of waste sent to landfill to biodegrade and add to global warming. Hopefully our industrial recycling methods will soon improve, meaning that we can have more faith in the recycling system and reduce the carbon footprint made by some of the current recycling processes.